On R U OK? Day we’re reminded that leaders play an important role in safeguarding and supporting the mental health of their teams. Asking after the mental health of a team member is the first step, and a very important one, in creating a more mentally healthy workplace.
However, what we’ve noticed over the years in our training and consulting work, and what we’ve read in studies from the major world economies, is that employees are reluctant to open up about mental health concerns to their leaders.
A study we completed recently confirmed what we’ve been hearing. We reached out to our community of managers and everyday employees and asked them two questions:
‘If a friend asked R U OK?, and the answer was ‘No’, would you tell them?’
‘If your BOSS asked R U OK?, and the answer was ‘No’, would you tell them?’
And, anticipating the response we might receive, we asked another question:
What advice would you give management to make it easier for their people to say ‘I’m not OK’?
We asked respondents to leave comments on the first two question if they wished, and we asked about their gender and age group so we could look for basic trends.
The results were pretty interesting.
Consistent with what we’ve seen and read, managers are a lot less trusted by employees when it comes to disclosing their mental health state. 29% of people said they’d hold back from telling a friend if they have a mental health concern. But that figure jumped to almost half when asked if they’d tell their manager.
Let’s start with a couple of hypothetical scenarios.
Whether you feel like you are being sabotaged in the workplace or you are questioning the authenticity of your managers’ requests, it is important to realize that everyone experiences a certain amount of workplace paranoia from time to time. Today’s competitive economy seems to breed workplaces where managers and employees alike are feeling more pressure than ever to perform at a maximum level, 100 percent of the time.
In reality, our feelings of uncertainty are driving our perceptions of our workplace relationships rather than reality. As a result, the way we handle the situation is likely based on our perception rather than reality as well.
Let’s take these two scenarios and examine what might really be going on.
Perception: Your manager has placed you in charge of a large project. Overwhelmed by the vastness of what you are being asked to do, you wonder if they are setting you up to fail. Feeling defeated and abandoned, you likely react in one of two ways. Either you attempt to buckle down and do your job, but find yourself on edge or miserable. Or you admit defeat, update your resume, and chalk your experience up to your terrible manager.
Reality: Your manager is terrible at reading your mind. Chances are, they have no idea that you are feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about your ability to complete the project or lead the team or do the task. Fortunately, most managers do not want to set their teams up for failure but instead are happy to mentor their employees during particularly difficult projects or transitions. Rather than trying to go it alone or giving up, bring your concerns to them and ask for help regarding next steps.
Perception: As a change agent in your organization, you are caught between employees who are resistant to your ideas and bosses who expect huge changes in a short amount of time. You begin to wonder if you will be able to keep your job or if you will become the latest casualty of the organization.
Reality: If you are undergoing organizational change, chances are your manager is too. It is entirely likely that they’re feeling unsupported by their managers while experiencing resistance from their subordinates. Without realizing it, managers can pass on their own feelings of corporate paranoia, especially during large scale change. Rather than assuming your manager is asking you to do the impossible while leaving you to manage your department’s change on your own, discuss how you can strategically support one another.
If you are still uncertain as to whether your boss has your back, schedule an opportunity to informally discuss your specific situation with them. Go for coffee, ask if they are happy with how your team is functioning. Ask for feedback on whether you should be doing things differently over a casual lunch. Regardless of the setting, be sure you own your perceptions for what they are – your interpretation of the situation. Begin the discussion by asking for clarification, rather than confronting your manager with what you perceive as reality. Not only does this open the lines of communication, it helps you both understand how your personal bias has affected your situation.
You may be surprised to find out that they had your back all along.
Anger. Everyone feels it at some stage in their lives. Putting a person – any person – in the pressure cooker that is the work place for a period of time and they are guaranteed to get angry at some point. That includes you, the manager, as well. A strong leader knows how to identify anger within themselves and others and knows what steps to take in order to rectify the situation.
As mentioned, there are two types of anger in the work place: yours and that of your people, each with their own two separate sub-types, overt and covert anger. Overt anger is visible and easy to spot, both within yourself and your people. It is out in the open, most likely used in a confrontation.
Covert anger is the anger that nobody was able to spot in time and became overt anger. This is the one to look out for. It is annoyance, irritation or passive aggression. Feelings we have all been told not to show, to grin and bear, to the point where sometimes, we don’t even notice they are there. But, they still manifest in a variety of different ways:
If you’ve noticed any of these within a member of your team, you will want to subtly investigate the cause so you can decide what to do next.
The best way to approach this is by being casual. Instead of pulling the person into your office for a chat, which may only exacerbate the situation, align your lunch with theirs, ask them about their day, their lives. Allow them to open up to you. If it is an issue at work, work with them to address it.
If it is an issue at home, be patient with them and allow them time to sort it out, and of course, offer your support if you can and it is appropriate. For anybody, having a manager that they can confide in and is understanding is of great comfort. It makes it much easier for them to “leave it at the door.”
And the same applies to you, the manager too. If you notice these feelings or signs, talk to someone about them, even if it is a member of your staff (showing that you trust them helps build their trust in you). It is important not to let this anger bubble under the surface, because it will eventually explode and either you or a member of your staff to will find themselves in a very compromising situation.
All overt anger was once covert anger. However, the length of time it has been bubbling under the surface can vary. It can be built up over weeks or months, or it can boil over in a matter of minutes. If confronted with this sort of anger in a member of your staff, it is important to remove them from the situation immediately. Again, taking them to the intimidating confines of your office for a chat has potential to make matters worse, therefore, it is best to take them for a walk or a coffee and talk to them calmly about what is making them feel this way.
Getting angry yourself will only make matters worse.
It is important to be a calming influence. Again, this is done by showing patience and care. Having a calm, rational and friendly chat with the employee will allow them to open up and tell you their grievances in order for you to help resolve them.
If you find these feelings boiling over within yourself, it is important to remove yourself from the situation, compose and control yourself and let the initial anger dissipate before you confront the source. This is especially important if the source of your anger is a member of your team. Taking a breather, whether it be for 5 minutes or leaving it for the next day is invaluable as it will allow you to confront the situation calmly, rationally and maturely – ensuring you don’t hurt or break the trust and respect you have worked hard to build with your team.
It’s hard being a manager. Often, it can feel like you’re the meat in the sandwich, between the needs of the employees and the needs of the Senior Directors or Board. But when it comes to mental health, taking action can have a positive effect for both parties. And it’s great for business! So why do so many managers get stuck – why do they shy away from addressing workplace mental health? Here are just some of the reasons:
Will this look like harassment?
What if I make it worse?
I really don’t have time for this.
As you can see, these are genuine considerations that need to be addressed if a workplace mental health strategy is to be effective. And they all can be addressed by educating managers about the need to (and benefits of) managing mental health effectively, but also to equip them with real and practical skills to do it right, so they are not at risk of a harassment claim, and so that they don’t make it worse.
I was chatting about life and medicine with an experienced doctor recently and he looked at me intently and said ‘you know what Peter? Wherever there is a human being there is a variable. We never have any certainty. Anything can happen’ He was talking about medicine specifically but doesn’t this also apply to any other area of life? Organisations need to understand this if they are to respond appropriately to mental health problems. How do they do that?
When an organisation makes informed responses, as opposed to knee-jerk, simplistic actions, it demonstrates the principle of ‘understanding complexity’.
People are complex. That much is obvious. But it’s depressing how quick people are to label someone who is different to them. My wife loves structure: a room, computer, a desk, somewhere to focus and crank stuff out. But to me, just talking about it… ugh. Give me a laptop at the beach, anytime, or a coffee shop, and then my mind starts flowing. To me, I couldn’t imagine putting someone at a desk and asking them to sit there for eight hours a day – surely that would be torture or they must be incredibly dull and lacking creativity. While to someone like Emi, wanting to take a laptop to the beach looks like some sort of weird learning disorder / ADD thing, lack of commitment, or simply ‘taking the piss’. And therefore we’d better put some controls in place to make sure they work and act how I think they should. That control rankles and it forces the person to perform from a position of weakness, not in a way that amplifies their talents. This is where we need to examine ourselves and say, “Are we unfairly judging someone because they are different? Is there a mental health disorder here, or a killer hidden talent?
Remember the canary. What at first instance may look like a weakness, may in fact be a sign of strength.
We are starting to see organisations respond to the mental health challenges in our workplaces. You can see it in initiatives designed to build awareness, like ‘R U OK?Day’. Building awareness is a good first step, but what happens when you ask someone, ‘are you ok?’, and the answer is ‘No.’ Awareness is powerful, but without knowing what to do next, it’s next to useless.
I’ve often reflected on the role of the manager being ‘to bring certainty and structure to unstructured situations.’ That’s a tough job. We are surrounded by unstructured situations. It’s called life. I think it was John Lennon that said, ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’. We can expect things not to go exactly to plan. And when things don’t go to plan, managers like to have a process for figuring out what’s wrong and how to fix it. That’s smart! Unfortunately people are incredibly complex. They have different goals and values. Different work styles and preferences. Different belief structures. And events affect them differently. There is no manual for ‘fixing’ a mental health problem – only a range of approaches you can try, some of which seem to work better than others. Would you believe the professionals still disagree about what mental illness even is? They argue amongst themselves and they write long, impressive papers about it, but in the end, there isn’t a consensus.
The point I’m trying to make is that, for a manager, there isn’t much to be gained by being able to diagnose a mental illness and prescribe a treatment plan. It’s not your job to do so. But by recognising that people and situations are complex, taking a step back, and coming at the problem with an enquiring mind, and an intention to help the individual, you can achieve a lot.
Take care, and talk soon.
Ever wondered how people screw themselves up?
Simple, we do it because we are afraid. And it’s ok. Fear is a natural survival mechanism. It’s a good thing, designed to protect us. But what happens when fear runs rampant? When your body reacts to a deadline at work with the same intensity as if it was being chased by a T-Rex? Then that’s not so good anymore, is it?
And it’s insane. It’s been said that 98% of the things we are scared of never come to fruition. Thank goodness, right? So, why do we make problems out of things that are highly unlikely to, ever, come true? It’s puzzling, isn’t it?
And when we keep doing that, fear, and anxiety turn into stress. And we all know what stress can do to our mental, not to mention physical health.
But, did you know that stress is actually good for you? Weird, right? But hear me out for a second…
Without some level of stress, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. We wouldn’t bother going to work, and we certainly wouldn’t take on challenges and strive to better ourselves.
However it’s the amount of stress that’s the key.
The Performance-Arousal Curve shows us that performance increases with stress to a point, beyond which additional stress becomes counterproductive. Spend too long past the optimum point in the stress curve and we risk exhaustion, anxiety and eventually a breakdown.
But here’s where it gets even more complicated. The ‘optimum’ level of stress is not the same for everyone! That’s right, each individual will have their own version of this graph. But the good news is, it’s not set in stone. It can change.
As leaders, we want to build motivated, resilient and high performing teams. And wouldn’t it be great if our teams could do two things;
First, adjust their ‘optimum stress level’, so they are more resilient in the face of inevitable pressures and challenges.
And second, self monitor and self correct if approaching overload and burnout? That’s what I’d like to see in our workplaces. That’s my vision.
In order to achieve this, workplaces need to teach team members how to recognise when a colleague tips into the right of the curve, and how to catch that person before they start to spiral down.
BUT in order to be truly effective, this education needs to have a strong Recovery approach. At the Workplace Mental Health Institute, everything we do has a strong Recovery approach applied to the workplace. We focus on recovery not illness. This may seem a subtle distinction, but it’s a vital one. We don’t teach people how to look for problems that aren’t there; we teach them how to minimise risk, and confidently identify & deal with the typical warning signs of the most common mental illnesses. So their teammates can get the help they need and recover. (And the evidence is now pretty clear that the overwhelming majority of people DO recover)
We don’t need to teach employees and leaders to be mental health practitioners, but we can give them the basic skills to intervene early, before things get out of hand.
Btw, if you’re responsible for managing the mental health of your employees, and you need some help, please hit me up. We can help you meet your compliance obligations, foster a happy, high-performing environment, and significantly reduce risk.
Often, when I deal with health professionals and people in training, I get a range of responses when they learn that people can recover from mental disorder. Some are surprised, some intrigued by the concept since they’ve never heard it before and others oppose the idea of recovery with a vengeance. Why? What’s going on?
The concept of ‘Recovery’ from mental health problems has been around for hundreds of years, and yet for many people, the fact that people do recover from mental disorders is something that still surprises many people.
There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that the traditional model of psychiatry has explicitly stated that people do not recover. We now have oodles of research showing that this simply isn’t true. But nonetheless, the misconception persists.
The term ’Recovery’ has a long political, social, and clinical history, and its meaning has been much debated particularly over the last 10 to 20 years. I won’t go into the details now, (I could write a whole book on it, and probably will one day).
For now, what you need to know is that the term ‘Recovery’ has particular meanings within the mental health sector (even though many working in that sector still do not understand it fully).
So here is my attempt to summarize some pretty complex ideas, into a few simple explanations of what ‘Recovery’ means to us here at The Workplace Mental Health Institute:
The Recovery approach adopted by the Workplace Mental Health Institute emphasizes and supports a person’s potential for recovery.
1. We believe Recovery is not only possible, it’s probable.
2. We view mental distress as mostly psychological, social or spiritual in nature, not as an illness. Though there maybe physical consequences and interactions.
3. We focus on ability, not disability.
4. We define Recovery as the absence of severe or abnormal distress, and the presence of positive emotions and wellness.
From a workplace safety perspective, if someone sees a cord in the office over which someone could trip, whose responsibility is it to do something about it?
The person who left the cord there? Of course, but what if they didn’t realise it was unsafe?
Is it the workplace safety manager? Sure, she’s responsible for making the organisation safer but she’s working interstate for the week and knows nothing about the cord.
Is it the cord-leaving employee’s manager? He’s accountable for the performance of his employees, but he’s been in meetings all morning and hasn’t spotted the cord either.
The answer of course is, the person who saw the cord.
Hopefully you twigged to the metaphor. Everyone shares responsibility for mental health – their own and those of their team members. We must move from a culture of blame:
“The employee should have looked after their own health so they could present fit for work.”
“That team should have looked after its own a lot better.”
“That manager could have avoided this by not being such a slave driver.”
“My organisation didn’t provide me with a physically and psychologically safe workplace.”
…to one of shared concern :
“Yes all of those statements are true, but it’s no one person’s responsibility. We’re human beings in the same plane at the same time, and if someone is unwell, let’s take care of each other.”
It’s not all about the manager and they shouldn’t feel the need to move heaven and earth for someone with a mental health issue. Likewise the person with a mental health issue is not a victim. They’re not powerless. They are also responsible for their side of the deal. It’s a mature, balanced way of thinking. And it empowers everybody.
Talk soon and have a mentally healthy day.